How to Get Seats Together as a Family on Southwest

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One of my daughter’s first flights when she was still very young was on Southwest.  We were heading to Disney World to meet up with family, and I was able to use some free flights I had earned from work to get us there on Southwest.  I don’t fly them as much anymore since I don’t have the same job that earned me Southwest credits (now points), and I no longer live closest to an airport that is served by Southwest.  That said, I have had my fair share of experience flying them over the past several years.  One of my concerns when we flew with my young daughter to Orlando was making sure we had three seats together.  Based on reading this Flyertalk thread, it seems others have the same concern.

 

Southwest does not assign seats in advance, so flying them with young children does present some unique challenges that you don’t have with other airlines.  At the time of our last Southwest flight, our daughter was still under two years old, but we had purchased a seat for her and her car seat to make sure she was as safe and comfortable as possible.  After doing that, we sure as heck didn’t want to have our family of three split up due to poor seat planning on our part.

Before I get into some strategies you can utilize on Southwest, here are some basics on how their boarding process works.  When you check-in you are assigned a boarding pass number in one of the three groups – A, B, or C.  Each of the groups has a corresponding number 1-60.  So, you may be A-45 which would potentially be the 45th person to board, or C-15 which would potentially be the 135th person to board (though likely more than that would have boarded by then including disabilities, family boarding, etc).  If you have A-List (elite) status or purchase a Business Select fare then you are automatically reserved a slot.  Otherwise, you are assigned your number based on when you check-in.

When it comes time to board you will line up in order at signs for your respective boarding groups.  There will be an A 1-30 line and an A 31-60 line.  Once the A’s start boarding the the B’s will start lining up in the spots the A’s previously occupied.  You do need to more or less get in your actual numerical order.  For example, if you have B25, you need to be toward the back of the B 1-30 line, or you will at the very least annoy those around you.  It isn’t as hard as it sounds, but it is a unique process the first time you experience it.

They do offer family boarding after the A group, but before the B groups for any families traveling with children 5 and under who have a boarding number outside of the A group.

Then once you get on-board you can choose any seats that are still unoccupied.  Obviously the better your boarding group and number, the larger selection of empty seats you will have to choose from.  This is relevant for everyone, but especially relevant if you are trying to get multiple seats together for your family.  Also keep in mind that if the flight has through passengers from a previous flight then there will be seats occupied even before A-1 gets to board.

So, what do you do in order to ensure that your family gets seats together?

  • Purchase EarlyBird check-in for $15.00 per ticket.  With EarlyBird check-in, you are secured a spot in the boarding process 36 hours before the flight – 12 hours before normal and without you having to check-in yourself at the exact appointed time.  It does not necessarily mean you will be given an A boarding spot, but you have a very good shot since you are 12 hours ahead of when the general public can check-in and get their “first come, first served” spot in line.  This is the easiest way to secure a good boarding spot, but it also comes with an extra cost so it isn’t for everyone.  Technically you are not supposed to save seats, though I have heard of families successfully purchasing EarlyBird for one or two people who secures a row toward the back of the plane and then others join them a little later in the boarding process.  I’m not saying you should do that, but I’m saying others have.
  • Check-in exactly 24 hours before departure.  Southwest starts handing out spots in the boarding process exactly 24 hours before the flight when on-line check-in opens.  If your boarding number matters to you and you don’t want to pay extra to secure a good spot, then it is crucial that you are at a computer exactly 24 hours before departure to check-in your whole party.  This will be the difference between you getting a A/B group or a B/C group.
  • Board during family boarding.  If you have a child in your party who is 6 or under, then you can forget all the extra hoops and just board during family boarding after the A group.  In theory this means just 60 folks boarded ahead of you, but in reality the plane can already have many passengers on-board who are continuing on from an earlier flight, so a whole row together can still be hard to come by if that is the case on some routes.  This method also does not help you if you have children who are 7, 8, 9 etc., but still need you to sit by them as they are technically too old to have your family qualify for family boarding.
  • Have A-List status or fly on a BusinessSelect ticket.  I don’t think that either of these two solutions are really all that practical for most families who are traveling on Southwest, but technically they would both secure you an A boarding pass.
  • Pay $40 at the boarding gate for one of the very first boarding numbers, if available.  If there are unsold A1 – A15 slots (that typically go to those who pay higher BusinessSelect fares) then they may be offered for $40 a little before boarding.  This is a newer option that I have never personally seen in action, but it could be a last ditch way to get on-board earlier if all other methods have failed, but I would have to be pretty desperate to pay $40 extra per person just to board early.
  • Book the first flight out in the day.  If you are on the first flight for that plane in the day then you can guarantee you are boarding an empty plane and there won’t be through passengers who are continuing on, thus already occupying seats.

I personally don’t have any desire to “sweat the small stuff” on family vacations, and would likely pay the extra $15.00 for EarlyBird check-in so I could be relatively certain my family would have an easy time securing seats together.  This is what I did when we flew to Orlando when Little C was very little.  On flights where securing seats together wasn’t as important I would just be sure to check-in 24 hours before my flight.

I know lots of you have Southwest experience, so what are your tips for securing seats together for your family?

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Comments

  1. I don’t have children so I can’t have first hand experience as a traveler with kids. However as a frequent Southwest flyer alone or with my wife, I’d have the same recommendations.

    To expand a bit on having someone “save” seats – as long as you’re at the back of the plane most people wont care too much at all. Frankly, most times when I fly Southwest in A or early B boarding I find that the back of the plane is equally as full as the front of the plane. The front of the plane typically being older travelers, the middle being being single/business flyers (who value those exit rows), and the family-designated “seat-holders” in the back standing up waiting for the rest of their family/group.

    Simply put, don’t be nervous about holding those seats as long as you go with that standard flow. But saving seats in the first or second row for 4-5 people? I’d avoid that lest you be reprimanded by Southwest’s kind, but very direct flight attendants.

  2. I think that if you board during family boarding you can’t sit in exit rows (which you couldn’t anyway if you are under age).
    SW also won’t allow you to save seats. So you can’t have someone board in A and save seats for other boarding groups.
    Just my experience or observations.

  3. We just flew WN for the first time as a family (my first ever) to Orlando. 2 adults, 2 kids (4,6). I was going to log on at t-24, but started getting nervous and decided that wasn’t helping me get into vacation mode . So, I paid $100 total for EBCI for the whole trip. I would say it was totally worth it, because I didn’t have to worry about checking in, I could just relax and enjoy my vacation. But in the future, if we qualified for family boarding, I’d do that.
    I’m glad to hear that you can’t save seats (at least that they sometimes stop people from doing it), but what you could do is sit in a window and an aisle with a kid, which makes you like the last middle seat anyone would want. Then your third person takes the middle when they get on (or makes the kid scoot to the middle and sits in the aisle)
    We had a great experience and would fly WN again in a heartbeat. I miss the security of knowing you’ve got a good seat, but family boarding is better than the certainty that you have a bad seat that you often get from other airlines – especially with the bonus of rude and grumpy employees that we seem to get from the legacies.

  4. One point that may be of use, earlybird checkin is an added cost but in my experience it is the same price whether you have a non-stop flight or a connection. However, if you have a connection, you get the better boarding class/number for both flights. I normally don’t use early bird checking if a am flying direct but if I have a connection I will get it since I get twice the value out of it for the same price.

  5. Jon, good advice. 😉
    DaninSTL, you are right about the rules – in practice I think saving does happen. Hopefully people keep it reasonable.
    MilesAbound, if having reserved seats is a must for you then yes, but Southwest does have a lot going for them as a family traveler.
    Jamie, glad you had a good experience and you are very correct that no one would be likely to pick a middle seat next to a kid until there is no better alternative. 😉

  6. I was pretty nervous about this prior to our first SW flight a couple of years ago. At the time, my kids were 6 & 3. We purchased the Early Bird Check In for our flight home (so we wouldn’t have to be bothered with stopping what we were doing on vacation to check in), but I decided to take a chance with checking in at the 24 hour mark for our flight to our vacation. We ended up with B1-4. We boarded during the family boarding and everything was fine, but I’ve forked over the few extra bucks ever since for EBCI. I figure it is still cheaper than paying baggage fees that I would have to pay with other airlines.

  7. Well, I’ve got no kids and am single. I follow one of 2 strategies to enhance my SW experience.

    (1) Try to board about 1/3 of the way through, finding a row with a pretty large person as the only person in the row – likely in a window or aisle. Then I seat myself in the corresponding aisle or window, in winter keep my jacket on, trying to look larger myself, and feign a nasty cold. Obviously depends on loads, but this gets me “Southwest First Class” about 90% of the time.

    (2) Board 2/3 of the way through and try to find a middle between two attractive, petite, women with nothing on their left ring fingers.

  8. no way jose. Airlines are not getting more money from me than is necessary.

    i’ve only taken a total of 6 one-ways, but there have been ample seats for our family of 3 to sit together as long as we board during family boarding.

    My daughter will celebrate her 4th birthday at least twice in her lifetime to ensure we can family board.

    And if you have more than one kid, as long as one of them is under 5, you can board during family boarding.

  9. Can you please give strategies that will ensure that I don’t have to sit with my family? That would be a post I’d love to see 🙂

  10. In practice, if a family does board late on a full flight I’ve seen the FAs try and find a few people who might be willing to relocate in exchange for a beverage of their choice. This works pretty well. I’d also agree with the comments about the back of the plane- it’s much less cutthroat than the front half and people are more willing to move around to accommodate families. 🙂

  11. AMJ, indeed and glad you found a strategy that works for you!
    jfhscott, I bet those strategies are not unique to you. I think a lot of pretty comical things probably happen during Southwest boarding!
    LaoSifu, well four is a fun age. 😉
    Lawrence, that would actually be really funny and I do have a few ideas….I think my husband might have used them once or twice. 😉 If I get a few extra minutes I’d love to write that post!
    Ethan, it is also my experience that usually folks do their best to help keep families together – though there are those rare occasions when it doesn’t happen.

  12. My advice would be not to fly them. I don’t like that boarding process and if you get stuck in the “C” group it will more than likely be a miserable experience. I have also found that the fares have skyrocketed. Southwest used to be a relatively inexpensive airline but not so anymore.

  13. We tend to fly southwest a lot since we live in Indy and my sister lives in Baltimore so they offer the most flights there daily.

    We usually just do the family board and sit in the second to last row on the plane (which is almost always open at that point). We have been lucky that our baby is an excellent flyer but it is nice to be near the galley where we can pace a little if needed.

  14. We ALWAYS purchase Early Bird for DH and me and have always gotten an A. We then just check the girls in at a time when it is convenient for us to do so, they usually get a B or C. When it becomes time to board, DH and I each take a daughter with us as we go through the scanning/boarding process. It’s obvious to the gate agent and everyone else that we wouldn’t leave our young daughters to board on their own with the rest of the B groups. Them boarding with us even though THEY don’t hold A’s has never been an issue. Early Bird costs more but is worth every penny to us so that we don’t need to stress about checking in right at the 24 hour mark. We are big SW fans: You get on, they close the doors and you’re off! Very efficient, very reliable, very on-time. Plus, free checked baggage. Totally works for us! 🙂

    • Or you could not leave them alone by boarding when they do or would that be inconvenient? You could even board during the designated family boarding between A and B.

      But I guess using the kids to squelch any valid complaints is a decent stratagem until you meet parents like the previous poster who paid for their kids’ EBCI.

    • Now I’ve tried this…when I was 8 months pregnant & traveling with my then 3 year old & was told I could not board with the A group (that I got with the Early Bird) that I needed to board with her ticket in C….or board at the family boarding. The airlines make it so difficult for people traveling with their children!

  15. Just flew wn in march. Paid $10 extra (12.50 now) and got B3. Flying buf>lax. Got exit row aisle seat very happy. I got happier when they asked for a volunteer to get off which i did. Picked up voucher, left 40 mins later and got to lax 15 mins sooner!
    Btw, when we fly wn we try to sit in the exit row with my wife in the aisle seat holding the puke bag up to her mouth and gagging…works about 90% of the time…….:-):-)

  16. Have flown Southwest for years with family, haven’t had a problem even with high B boarding, which is pretty easy to get with at least 12 hours pre-checkin.

    Honestly, I’ve had more problems getting seats together on United because they change equipment, move, or altogether ‘forget’ my seat reservations and I don’t catch it in time. Now that Awardwallet stopped tracking UA reservations, I’ve had 3 such cases in the last year.

  17. I fly Southwest ALL the time (live 5 miles away from one of their largest “hubs” in Oakland), and I’ve never had any trouble getting a row of three together if I board during family boarding between groups A&B. Usually I have to go more than halfway to the back of the plane, but there are always many rows open. It’s totally not worth it to me to pay for EarlyBird when I have a 4 year old! And, in my experience, a lot more people are paying for EarlyBird so when I have used it, I often get seats at the very end of the A group which only gets me a few spots ahead of where I was.

  18. Most people are actually pretty nice enough to move for you if you ask NICELY. Keyword…ASK NICELY, not DEMAND.

    Come to think of it, this approach works with almost EVERYTHING in life…

  19. Lining up for SW flights really shows you how stupid people are. I’ve had clowns with B1 on their boarding pass standing right in front of the A1-30 monitor and the entire line had to squeeze by this idiot who would’ve been at the front of the line when his group was called anyways. Then there’s people who don’t know how to count and stand at A10 when their boarding pass says A28. Ughh, people in general are so frustrating to deal with.

  20. EBCI is simply stupidity tax. Once everyone decides to pay it then we’re all back to square one and WN is laughing all the way to the bank. Would never pay this in principle and the fact that I live in a world where other people do makes me sad.

  21. I will be flying Southwest with my 4 month old son for the first time next month. I appreciate the heads up here. I was sort of starting to get a bit panicked about the whole thing, but feel better now. My wife flew alone with him about a month ago on Alaska and it was great. The crew was nice and even gave her a row to herself (not a full flight obviously).

  22. Thanks for the info. Good stuff.
    The age for family boarding has been updated to 4 years old. Your article reads 5 years old. Maybe they need to reduce some of the family boarding. Sorry if someone already mentioned.
    Jim

  23. There is nothing more irritating on boarding a SW flight than being told you can’t sit somewhere because the “A” passenger is saving seats. They alone paid the extra and are saving seats for the rest of their party who didn’t and are boarding after you. I always protest loudly so that the FA hears. They usually do nothing which only encourages this unfair behavior. Too bad the author offers this as an alternative. The fairest system is the one offering seats as at the time the reservation is made. The earlier you book the flight the more seat choices are available.

  24. Another strategy you can employ is to board early with a kid and then get them really upset, preferably screaming at the top of their lungs. It causes a nice bubble of open seats around you. If anyone dares to sit nearby, they are usually family friendly.

  25. The flight attendants must start enforcing the “no saved seats” rule. People paying for one person to be in the early A seating group and saving one or more seats should earn a LOUD protest in the aisle and be removed from their front of the cabin seat and only allowed to re-board when their “partner” boards.

    On a recent flight to Orlando (of course!), one man had boarded in the early A-group and then announced he had “these two rows” just behind the exit rows (one group of three on the left and one group of three on the right, where he was sitting on the aisle). Not only is this GROSSLY unfair, as I did all I could to secure an A-30 spot – which sounded like I’d be the 30th person to select a seat, but could not find an aisle seat until I was well behind him – but it also caused much confusion as boarding passengers saw the empty seats and thought, “I’ll sit there”. Then he had to yell, “I have these two rows!”

    Southwest should announce, loudly and clearly, that any seat that is not CURRENTLY occupied by a real human being is FREE GAME. If a couple or group wants an early boarding position, they should ALL pay the $12.50 or so per ticket or take their chances by checking in exactly 24 hours before departure.

    Another option would be for Southwest to just admit that groups traveling together want to sit together and set a fair fee ($25-$35) for a group of up to 4 people to get in that earliest boarding group.

    The onus is on Southwest to enforce the policy that they created. The system generally works well, but it will break down without enforcement.

    • In other words, move your feet lose your seat. If you go to the bathroom before everyone has boarded, your spouse can’t save your seat?

  26. @JohnnieD, “Btw, when we fly wn we try to sit in the exit row with my wife in the aisle seat holding the puke bag up to her mouth and gagging…works about 90% of the time…….:-):-)”… Smh….this is such a sad commentary on human behavior. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?

  27. Technically there is no way for anyone to stop you from sitting in said “my row” seats. The gentleman who was “saving” rows would have had a tough time stopping my family from sitting in “his” saved rows and I would have done it politely with a ticket-purchasing smile on my face.

    • It’s easier to “take” a whole row of saved seats. When a person is saving one or two seats right next to their seat, I think they know you won’t force the issue because they can make your entire flight miserable.

  28. I totally forgot to check in early and have a 5 yr old and 8 yr old. We ended up with c boarding. I would love to have my kids sit next to other people so I could have a relaxing flight. As long as the person next to them helps them with their snacks and gets out their drawing supplies and doesn’t mind a drink spilled on them or a kid sleeping on their shoulder.

  29. I missed this article before my family of five flew 5+ hours on SWA. What a surprise that we should have read the fine print on the SWA website. I say find print, because they don’t really publicize in their FAQ or Travel Tips. I would have paid the $15/ticket had I known that they don’t care if you mortgaged the house to buy 10 tickets, they aren’t accommodating family travel without their gate fee, period.
    I think it is an FAA violation to allow and/or force children that would qualify as unaccompanied minors to not be allowed and/or have reserved seating next to a sibling of age or, better, a legal guardian or parent. Yes SWA, an FAA Violation. I am sure you disagree, but in fact, things happen on planes, both in the air, and during take off and landing, and to tell the parents: No Reserved Seating without paying the Early Bird fee or whatever, may be illegal.
    I will let someone else clue in this airline. I solved my problem by paying $80 for Pre Boarding or whatever, and telling passengers “these seats are reserved” instead of chancing separate seating for the second leg of our trip. It is the last $80 I will ever spend, short of emergency travel, with SWA.
    PS: Our first landing on a plane, as a family, was a hard landing in MDW on SWA. Someone commented that we could claim our luggage from the runway after we deplane. I thought it was funny, …my son did not.

  30. Just yesterday, I saw a man try to board at about position A45. The gate agent sent him out to wait for family boarding with his wife and baby. I don’t know whether he had checked in and received an A45 boarding position or if his boarding pass said Family Boarding, but I was glad the agent told him where to go.

  31. Flying out of Seattle, my wife and I got our boarding pass at the same time. When we got to switch planes at Las Vegas, we went to board with my group A45 something, the gate lady refused to let my Wife board we realized that she was 50 some people behind me in Group B near the last. She made her step out of line and wait. My wife waited and finally insisted on boarding. Hateful lyrics the attendant rudely let her board last.

  32. I’m very nervous about flying and have never flown. Looking to purchase tickets to Orlando in the Fall and want to sit with my family. At least my husband. What can we do to insure this happens. I just can’t sit by myself. 🙁

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